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I recently read Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art And Science Of Remembering Everything” about his journey from an ordinary forgetful guy to the finals of the US Memory Championships a year later. Along the way he learned a great deal about learning, memory, and the human potential, which his books provide an engaging survey of.

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You may have heard of the name K. Anders Ericsson – for anyone interested in the topic of expert performance this is the psychologist (and his research team) at the cutting edge of this topic. Foer submitted himself for testing in Ericsson’s research lab before and after his training. He also periodically consulted with Ericsson for understanding how the brain works and for advice on how to overcome some obstacles he faced in his training path. In Chapter Eight of his book, entitled “The OK Plateau” Foer cites his own example and then gives a succinct summary of the Deep Practice process and understanding that I wanted to share with you.

I am going to extract a paragraph (on page 169) and insert the topic swimming where he was describing the skill of typing – this will immediately translate the concept into our athletic context:

When people first learn to [swim] they improve from sloppy [awkward movements] to careful [deliberate movements], until eventually the [body] moves so [relatively] effortlessly across the [pool] that the whole process becomes unconscious and the [body] seems to take on a mind of its own. At this point most people’s [swimming] skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it’s a strange phenomenon. After all, we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, and many people [swim lap after lap, day after day] in essence practicing their [swimming]. Why don’t they just keep getting better and better?

Foer goes on to summarize three stages of new skill acquisition described by psychologists:

1 – Cognitive Stage

 “You’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently.”

2 – Associative Stage

“You’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient.”

Let me add, “…becoming more efficient [at the specific task being practiced].”

This is what we may call the ‘Imprinting Stage’ in Total Immersion jargon. You’ve got decent control over the skill, but you still have to concentrate on it to keep it as the level of quality you expect. So, you’ve got to do many successful mindful repetitions to hard-wire it into the system. If you remove your attention from it, and the quality goes down right away, then you know it is not yet automated.

3 – Autonomous Stage

“…when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing.”

Now, it should be clear that we need to train specific skills to reach the Autonomous Stage by race day because then we can rely upon them – in that autopilot mode – to work under stress while our mind is concentrating on higher level matters (like race strategy). This is what you want for race day. (And the same applies for those simply seeking to enjoy a Big Pleasure Swim event also, without the pressure of racing, but with the stress of navigating in new water, going longer distances, or going through uncertain water conditions).

But, that is as good as it is going to get unless, during your practice days you switch off the autopilot and keep a high level of concentration on the specific skill, challenging it to go further.

If you slip into Autonomous Stage in practice you enter what’s called in this expert performance realm as “‘the OK Plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at [swimming], turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” (p. 170)

So what do we do if we don’t want to settle for that plateau? Follow the patterns found in the highest performers.

“Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, [Ericsson] has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things:
  1. focusing on their technique,
  2. staying goal-oriented, and
  3. getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.
In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase”.” (p.171, numbering, italics and underline mine)
Allow me to translate more of Foer’s words into our swimming context because he does a splendid, succinct job:
Amateur [swimmers], for example, are more likely to spend their practice time [swimming laps], whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult [pieces of stroke control]. The best [swimmers] spend more of their practice time [working on stroke skills they are not so good at], while lesser [swimmers] work more on [stroke skills] they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.” (p.171)

And let me stress, it must be hard in the cognitive sense, not merely the fitness sense (pumping muscle).

A few more quotes from the book and then you’ll just need to go get a copy of it yourself…

“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“My dad may consider putting into a tin cup in his basement a good form of [golf] practice, but unless he’s consciously challenging himself and monitoring his performance – reviewing, responding, rethinking, rejiggering – it’s never going to make him appreciably better. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”

Now do you understand why certain passionate masters swimmers you see in their practice day after day, week after week, month after month, are never getting faster? Or perhaps, why you are not getting any faster?

“The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing.”

This is why I talk about why we should cultivate a positive relationship with failure, and how to practice around these ‘failure points’.

“The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing – to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.”

So, you can certainly ‘quit thinking so much and just swim’… if you don’t want to get any better at your swimming in that moment. That fact is proven by the millions of people who swim every day and will never get any better at swimming as long as they tune-out of their activity. Granted, most of those people likely have no idea how to improve, nor what to work on and would appreciate some organized advice on it. But for all those allegedly under the guidance of a coach, their lack of improvement has a systemic fault – the coach and the swimmer’s understanding of how complex skill improvement works in the human is deficient. There is little doubt that their intentions are good and efforts earnest, but their knowledge is a bit out of date these days. The Good News is that the understanding of how skill improvement works is openly available to anyone who wants to study and to put the concepts into practice. Total Immersion does not own this information, it’s just that we are taking deliberate advantage of it and applying it to the swimming context.

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